Dr. Rick Halperin doesn’t spend his school vacations in a typical way. As the Director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University, many would expect him to take advantage of a few weeks off of school by relaxing and rejuvenating as he prepares for the next semester of rigorous academic work. In fact, he does the opposite: he gets busy. And he doesn’t just fill his schedule with to-do lists and projects to complete and books to read (although that’s part of the equation, too). Dr. Halperin focuses on changing the lives of the students in his programs and members of the Dallas community by bringing them face to face with global human rights issues, forcing them to confront the realities of injustice and causing them to question what they’re going to do to make a difference. He leads trips to nations far and wide, exposing travelers to the atrocities inflicted upon generations of people, and he uses these experiences to shape conversations about how participants can start effecting change once they return to U.S. soil.
Originally from Alabama, Dr. Halperin attended George Washington University for undergraduate school, progressing on to SMU for his Master’s degree and Auburn University for his PhD. He studied Southern History in all three levels of academia, focusing on the racial and social implications of the events that occurred in the southern United States over the span of several decades. After graduating, he taught at Tulane, Ole Miss, and Auburn before moving to Dallas to teach Southern History at SMU in 1985.
Dr. Halperin cites his collegiate study abroad experience as a time that shaped his passion for human rights. In 1968, he studied and traveled throughout Europe, claiming Paris as his home base during a highly politicized time. It was an eye-opening experience for him, especially when he started visiting Holocaust sites. Right then and there Dr. Halperin knew he wanted to bring more people to see these places. During that time, there wasn’t a great understanding or visual experience connected with the Holocaust; instead, most people were more familiar with World War II sites and stories. Dr. Halperin wanted to expose them to this different side of the war, especially to the grave injustices imposed upon the Jewish community in Europe.
In 1983, Dr. Halperin began traveling to Poland on his own to find out if he could start bringing groups to experience the Polish culture and visit Holocaust sites. He visited annually through 1995 to conduct research, determined to find a good way to lead groups to the sites that had impacted him so greatly.
“To me, the Holocaust is the historical antecedent to the modern human rights movement,” Dr. Halperin told us. “If people are going to understand human rights, they ought to understand what happened in the Holocaust.”
In 1989, while still taking his annual trips to Poland, Dr. Halperin proposed teaching a new human rights course at SMU. He was fortunate to have a department chair who encouraged him to try out the curriculum. During the same year, he was elected to the Board of Directors for the United States division of Amnesty International, where he had volunteered every since studying abroad in Paris. His passion for travel continued, and in 1996, seven years after teaching his first human rights course on SMU’s campus, he led his first official group trip to visit Holocaust sites in Poland.
Dr. Halperin witnessed so many changed lives over the course of leading the trips, including Lauren Embrey’s. She was a student in his program who joined the Poland trip, and she was so moved by her experience that she and her family donated the resources needed to launch the Embrey Human Rights program at SMU. The goal was to start with a Human Rights undergraduate major and eventually expand to encompass a Master’s degree and PhD. In order to implement the vision and see the dream come to fruition, Lauren asked Dr. Halperin if he would be interested in chairing the program.
“I looked at her and said, ‘I’ve waited my whole life to hear that question,” Dr. Halperin recalls with a grin on his face.
In 2012, there were only four other colleges in the entire United States that offered Human Rights as an undergraduate major. That year, SMU became the fifth to do so, marking the university as the location that was the furthest south and furthest west to provide such a curriculum to its students. It became the fastest growing program on SMU’s campus, which was no surprise to Dr. Halperin.
“Our students are unbelievable, and the faculty have been incredibly supportive,” he said. “The students can’t wait to get out of here to go do human rights work in the for-profit world, the nonprofit world, in journalism, in medical school, in the military—the sky’s the limit. They are passionate young people who are changing the world and the people around them.”
Dr. Halperin continues leading trips every few months to places like Rwanda, Argentina, Australia, Japan, and, of course, Poland. The trip to the Holocaust sites in Poland is the only one that is offered annually, but it is an opportunity that’s available to anyone who’s interested in joining, not just students and faculty. Dr. Halperin told us it’s important to involve family and community in these types of trips, saying that not only does it help expand peoples’ worldview but also, from a sentimental perspective, because it’s his own mother who inspired him to do what he does today.
“I am blessed because I have a great mom,” Dr. Halperin said. “Anything good that has come out of me is credited to her.”
For more information on the Embrey Human Rights program or the international trips offered by the department, visit SMU’s website.
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Story by Rachel Brown. Photos by Hunter Lacey.